The XX Factor

Why Don’t Women Harassed Online Call the Cops? Read This.

These guys will not be showing up at your harasser’s door.

Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images

If you’re a woman writing online who has come to the attention of the endlessly fixated misogynist brigade, you have probably experienced death and rape threats. You have also probably experienced something nearly as annoying if not quite so frightening: helpful people who encourage you to call the police. I usually send those people over to YouTube so Flavor Flav can explain the situation to them, but Rebecca Watson at Skepchick graciously decided to write a thorough blog post detailing exactly how much of a waste of time that can be. 

Watson, a popular skeptic blogger, has the honor of being a favorite target of psychotic-sounding woman-haters, and as such has made multiple attempts in multiple cities to get law enforcement to do something about the online threats—threats like emails that read, “If I lived in Boston I’d put a bullet in your brain” and websites that featured photos of Watson with targets on her. As she learned, local cops don’t really have the authority to do anything. And the FBI has a little more power, but, in her experience, did not make prosecuting people for violent threats—most of which stay threats—a priority. Watson eventually hired a private detective, which a friend graciously paid for, in order to get a better idea of what she was dealing with when it came to the scariest man threatening her life. She concludes:

I don’t go to the cops because the cops don’t care. I’m sure they’re doing very important things, like shooting drug dealers or whatever. And for every Anders Breivik there are 100 men who will never go further than hating women from the comfort of their basements; for every George Sodini, 100 men who only wish they could gun down women.

And I guess wishing isn’t illegal.

The odds that someone threatening you online will actually act on the threat is exceedingly low, so really wishing shouldn’t be illegal. The problem is that some men who harass women are very good at exploiting the legal gray area between free speech and infringing on someone else’s right to live free of violence, and it’s hard to see how the criminal justice system could change to make that less true. This is why I tend to favor strategies such as pressuring social networks to remove violent misogynist content instead of looking to the law to save us.